This wasn’t the strongest week in the CW’s Arrowverse: Both The Flash and Arrow came back from the holiday break with oddly flat episodes that felt like padding. On The Flash, Barry waffled over whether or not to reveal his secret identity to Patty; on Arrow, Oliver got real, real mad at Damien Darhk, Anarky showed up for no real reason, and the endless flashbacks meandered vaguely towards relevance.
But then Legends of Tomorrow, the latest expansion to DC’s television universe, came along to (in a roundabout) way explain what the theme of the week was, and everything started to get more interesting.
Spoilers for all three shows follow!
Legends of Tomorrow, appropriately, starts in the future: London, 2166, where the second blitz is taking place. It’s a futuristic tangle of robotic body armor and scrappy resistance fighters—and even scrappier kids. A little boy named Jonas, awfully calm after watching his mother die, spits in the face of Vandal Savage, a man so evil his name tells you he’s a bad guy twice (not to mention his slicked-back hair, the fashion choice of ever so many villains). Savage takes the kid out, because he’s just that bad.
So bad, in fact, that Rory Pond, dressed in the height of future fashion and pointy collars, would desperately like to destroy him. Look, I know this is not Rory Williams-Pond, but it is Arthur Darvill, and he is playing a Time Master with a possible rebellious streak. If you can ignore the Doctor Who parallels, you are possibly a better person than I (and better than the show’s crew, too, it seems). But, ok, he is not Rory; he is Rip Hunter, and he wants to take a timeship and go stop Savage.
Time Lords Time Masters are sternly invested in guarding the timeline, so they’re a little skeptical. But the next thing we know, Rip is here in January 2016, rounding up his team. On a Star City rooftop, he gives them a moderately rousing speech about the fate of the world. If it’s not convincing, perhaps the gizmo that shows a vision of the burning city of the future will help? He gives them a day and change to decide whether to join him, playing on their self-importance with a reminder that of all the people in all the times, he chose them. In the future, they’re not heroes; they’re legends. Which is way better, even if “legends” do have a tendency to be long-dead.
We already know that everyone’s joining up, but everyone gets a chance to explain their reasons. Ray Palmer/The Atom is still moping a little about how when everyone thought he was dead, it didn’t matter at all, so it’s a no-brainer that he wants to go feel important. Sara Lance, currently getting into bar fights in the middle of nowhere, lacks motivation after that whole coming-back-from-the-dead thing (where’s Nyssa? Surely she could offer some comfort). The Hawkpeople, former barista Kendra Saunders (RIP her relationship with Cisco) and boringly upright Carter Hall, have a history with Vandal Savage. Kendra wants to get the hell away from him, but loses to Carter when they decide to literally fight over whether they’re going to go or not. (This is their relationship in a shriveled, mostly unsatisfying nutshell.)
The bickering odd couple of Firestorm, aka professor Martin Stein and former mechanic Jefferson Jackson, also disagrees about whether or not to join up. Martin, selfishly, gives Jefferson very little choice (he comes around, eventually, via an awkward football metaphor). The only team that agrees about what to do is Captain Cold and Heat Wave (civilian names: Leonard Snart and Mick Rory), who know an opportunity to do some epic thieving when they see one.
Once everyone’s signed on, Rip reveals his timeship—meaningfully named Waverider, definitely not a TARDIS, way more spacey, and equipped with a computer personality we’ve already encountered on The Flash—and off to the first timestop they go, oblivious to the black-armored being who shows up in their wake.
A lot of plot is packed into this first episode—which is only part one of the pilot, with part two airing next week—but what happens is far less relevant, or interesting, than what it says about the characters. This team is half do-gooders and half bar-brawlers, and that’s not being ignored; one of the best moments in the episode finds Sara fighting off some untoward advances in a 1975 bar. The camera cuts to Leonard, just for a moment, and the look on his face is part instant-crush-formation, part sheer admiration, and part anticipation; he’s just waiting for her to tell him to join in. That he’s smart enough to notice that Sara likes to do things on her own is telling; they’re alike in some ways, even if the show seems to want to nudge Sara towards Ray.
What’s also telling is the joy with which Sara approaches that fight. Caity Lotz has always been great as this character, who’s brittle and fearless, and never seems as content as when she’s working out her demons on some guy’s face. She’s as much a wild card as the actual villains, except that she has heroic aspirations; she just doesn’t think she’s good enough to pull them off. So when Rip’s hand is revealed, she’s just the person to make sense of it.
Turns out that armored creature who was shooting at the Waverider is called Kronos, and is in the employ of the council of Time Masters, who maybe, just possibly, didn’t really give Rip permission to take off with their precious timeship. (Does any of this sound familiar? No? Stealing a TARDIS? Nothing like another time traveler we know, surely.) We’ve been through everyone’s reasons for joining the team—except Rip’s. That rebellious moppet at the opening? His kid. His wife. His personal vendetta. (The Time Masters, rather like Jedi/Time Lords/other councils of middle-aged white men through fiction and time, discourage personal attachments, so they’re deeply indifferent.) And all that stuff about choosing this team because in the future they’re legends? Not so much: it’s because their lives, in 100 years, have “minimal effect” on the timeline.
And this is where the show gets interesting. This week’s Flash and Arrow both dealt with personal attachments, and the effects they have on a hero’s life: Barry nearly lost Patty to a villain who collects things of emotional value, but in the end it was his own poor choices that pushed her away. Oliver spent a lot of energy on a pointless attack on Darhk because he’s angry about what happened to Felicity. As is so often the case with superhero stories, doing things for personal reasons didn’t work out well. It’s the thing a hero isn’t supposed to do: Act in his or her own self-interest. Or, more precisely, admit that self-interest is part of the game.
Legends of Tomorrow, though, gives us a team that’s largely choosing to save the future—or at least trying to—because there’s something in it for them. They’re all angry to discover Rip tricked them, but he chose wisely: Ray is desperate for a way to feel important. Martin sees it as a way to decide their own fates. The Hawkpeople just want to get rid of Savage before he kills them for the 207th time. Nothing’s really changed for Leonard and Mick, the “malcontents”; the timestream still offers opportunity for creative criminal activity. But Sara is the one to figure out that it doesn’t really matter if they’re nobodies in Rip’s terrible future. It’s a future he plans to change. “If we have the power to change the world, don’t you think we have the power to change our own fates?”
So there you have it: Legends isn’t about legends. Yet. The show is setting itself up to be about the place where self-interest overlaps with the more traditional vision of the heroic impulse—to address the way that saving the world is almost never a truly selfless goal. There’s always something in it for the hero, even if it’s just the satisfaction of a job well done.
Rather than hide those interests, these characters have their hearts on their pleather sleeves, and none more so than Ray Palmer, who just can’t stand not being important, but is too nice to be a dick about it. Brandon Routh is perfect in this role, not least because of the delight in seeing Superman Returns’ Sad Supes so … human. He’s brilliant, handsome, well-liked, and it’s not enough. Is it ok to want more? Can you do good for selfish reasons? Can a personal vendetta become a meaningful crusade? Can a time travel show avoid becoming a long series of explanations about why this or that thing can’t actually be changed? Can Legends focus more on those first questions than the last one? Here’s hoping.
Molly Templeton would watch a whole show about White Canary.